In our recent day and time many people struggle with rest. Whether it is mental, physical, or even general unrest, it is proving to be a hard time to be at peace. Many people have been struggling to understand exactly what is going on during this Covid crisis, or precisely how to feel in regards to life as a whole. Sleep has certainly been a harder thing to come by. You may think to yourself, “I have all the time in the world right now—how could I have trouble sleeping?” There are many reasons, there are plenty. Life isn’t the easiest for anyone right now, and it is important in these times to remember the practice of self-care.
One of the best self-care gifts you can give yourself is health, all encompassing—practicing good eating habits, continuing exercise, and making your sleep a priority. Racking in a regular solid amount of slumber can not only help you feel better in the short term, but have lasting long term benefits to your health. We’ve all heard the basics in seeking out better sleep or a quicker drift off to dreamland; we should limit our caffeine intake, avoid electronics and bright lighting, try not to consume large meals close to bed time, and try to get in a sleep centered mindset. More specifically, you should be mindfully practicing relaxation techniques added into your bed time routine. In this article I will highlight some of my favorites.
Dr. Andrew Weil, founder of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine and the editorial director of DRWEIL.com has many helpful techniques and insight on topics ranging from body, mind, and health, to vitamins and food safety. He has many different articles and recommendations for aid with sleep. He recommends several types of relaxation techniques, to include yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises. One I have personally tried and had great success with is as follows.
The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique
To try this: Get in a comfortable position and prepare to focus only on breathing. Inhale for four seconds. Hold this breath for seven seconds. Release this breath over the course of eight seconds. Repeat this series four times.
According to Weil, this is a tried and true technique that has helped many battle the struggles of getting to dreamland. The point behind this is to bring relaxation to the body and ease the mind, blocking it from other thoughts or worries by focusing on your breathing. Occasionally I’ve been known to repeat this more than four times, my mind doesn’t have the most easily located off button. It may take a few tries to reach optimal effect, or you may fall asleep not even knowing if you made it to the fourth repeat or not. This technique actually requires a lot more focus than you would think, use that to your advantage.
I had never previously tried meditation, although I am certainly the type of person who could benefit from a quiet mind, especially at bedtime. A while back I stumbled upon the Calm app (available for Android or iOS devices or online) which provides an almost transfixing series of guided meditations. The app gives you both free and paid options, as well as different types of guided meditation. There are several different options as to the type of experience you can have, varying voices and lengths of time the meditation will play for. You also can listen to different types of background noises; white, rainfall, thunderstorm, etc. I started with thunderstorms and worked my way into deeper meditations. It is most similar to me to the feeling of falling asleep while being read to as a child. It took a bit of getting used to sleeping with headphones in, but I noticed the ease in which I was able to fall asleep and the quality of that sleep increasing. You can use the Calm app or any other that you find to be useful and relaxing. Finding something to help drown out the whirlwind of thoughts and to-do lists floating around in your mind is key.
Progressive muscle relaxation
During progressive muscle relaxation, you will focus on each muscle group in your body, first tensing selected muscles for a few seconds and then slowly relaxing them over the course of 20 to 30 seconds. This can be done either in the floor before you get into bed, or if you prefer, as you lay in your bed before focusing on falling asleep. These series of actions help to promote overall relaxation which can have not only physical benefits, but can help to calm your mind as well. If you prefer exploring with an audio guide though this process, there are some great YouTube channels out there that you can check out, such as “Relax for a While”.
Trying this on your own as explained by Phil Gehrman, PhD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology at Penn Medicine, would look something like the following:
Lift your eyebrows to wrinkle your forehead, and then slowly relax and let the tension out of your forehead. Close your eyes tightly and then relax and slowly open them. Tense your lips, cheeks, and jaw muscles by grimacing, and then feel a sense of serenity come over your face as you relax all your facial muscles at once.
Shoulders and arms
Bring your shoulders toward your ears, tensing your muscles, and then slowly let them relax. Starting with your upper arms, flex your biceps, and then relax, letting the tension out of your muscles. Tense your forearms, and then slowly let them relax.
Chest and abdomen
Take a deep breath and tense the muscles within your chest and abdomen, and then slowly exhale as you relax these muscles.
Flex the muscles in your back as you arch them on the floor or bed, and then relax and let the stress and tension go out of your back muscles.
Hips and buttock
Tighten the muscles in your hips and buttocks, and then slowly release the tension and feel the stress leaving this area of your body.
Legs and feet
Flex your leg muscles, squeezing your legs together, and then slowly relax. Flex your feet for a few seconds, and then relax them. Curl your toes, and then slowly let them return to neutral.
Whatever technique you try (be it one of the above or even something else) it is important to have your own aid system. Bed time routines are crucial and can always benefit from being added to or amended. You may have to try several different options or combinations before finding the perfect fit for you. Try incorporating one (or all) of these into your nightly system and see if they can help you get a more restful night of sleep. Your health will thank you.